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Big bucks flow into heated campaign

Tired of the campaign commercials that fill your television screen or the glossy brochures that flood your mailbox?

Thank the people who give the candidates and political committees the money that helps pay those political expenses.

Local, state and federal campaigns are setting new highs for spending – and arguably new lows for tactics – as money floods into the candidates, the political committees and the independent groups. A computer analysis of state and federal campaign reports by The Spokesman-Review indicates more than $3.7 million from Spokane County has been contributed to campaigns across the political spectrum.

About $1.7 million has flowed out of Spokane County and into the campaigns for Congress, the presidency and various national political committees, according to reports sent to the Federal Elections Commission and collected by FECinfo, a Web-based service that tracks political giving.

Another $2 million from Spokane residents, businesses and groups has been given to state, legislative and local campaigns this year, according to reports filed with the state Public Disclosure Commission.

Some of Spokane’s largest donors say they have given more this year because they believe more is at stake in the 2004 elections than any time in a generation.

Craig Clifford, a Spokane investor and real estate developer who tops the list of individual contributors from Spokane County, said his biggest concern is the economy.

“I believe in George Bush and I believe in George Nethercutt, and I guess I put my money where my mouth is,” said Clifford, who has given more than $41,000 to various federal candidates, mainly Republicans.

Clifford said he views political contributions as one way of giving back to society. For much of his life, he was so busy with work he didn’t have time to be involved in politics or other community activities. In the last 15 years, he’s been able to change that.

“As you have a little extra money and try to do some good, you try to find people who could facilitate those ideas,” he said.

Chris Marr, the chief operating officer of Foothills Auto Group, has been active in Democratic politics for years. But Marr said he is more motivated this year to contribute to campaigns.

“There is a lot on the line that I find worth investing in,” said Marr, who has given more than $27,000 in this election cycle, primarily to Democratic candidates for state and federal office.

Being high on a list of contributors is “the type of notoriety I don’t want,” joked Marr. But he said his work with business and transportation issues such as Spokane’s University District and a stint as a former chairman of the Spokane Regional Chamber of Commerce has led to relationships with elected officials he wants to keep in place.

“My interest and passion about political issues goes back a long way,” Marr said. “My ability to contribute has been limited until recent years.”

Chris Carlson of the Gallatin Group, a public affairs company with offices around the Northwest, gives to candidates of both parties. His company has to be able to demonstrate to clients they have access “on both sides of the aisle” when lobbying for key issues, he said.

His contributions are probably higher this election year, he said, in part because candidates have been “more relentless than ever” in the search for cash to make up for the so-called soft-money donations outlawed by recent campaign finance laws.

But Carlson also believes 2004 may be a historic election cycle because of the interest and energy being generated from the presidential race on down the ballot.

“There is a sense by the candidates that the stakes have never been higher,” said Carlson, who is listed at $14,750 in the computer analysis of contributions conducted by the newspaper. He added, however, that he’s given another $1,000 recently to U.S. Sen. Patty Murray that has not yet shown up in the reports.

Avista Corp., the Spokane-based utility, probably isn’t giving significantly more to candidates and campaigns this year, said Tom Paine, the company’s director of governmental relations. But it seems like the candidates are asking for bigger contributions to help pay for the rising cost of campaigns.

“We do what we can to support those candidates that work with us,” said Paine. So far this year, that’s meant more than $115,000 to a wide range of candidates for statewide and legislative office and ballot initiatives. Federal law prohibits companies or unions from giving money directly to candidates.

Paine added that political contributions do not come from the utility’s customers, but rather from the profits to its investors. State regulators do not allow utilities to pass on the contributions to their ratepayers.

Some of Spokane’s biggest donors were quick to say that while they may be giving more, they are less happy with the things the candidates and political parties do with their money this year.

“I think this is just an awful year,” said Paine. “I’ve never seen such fast and loose use of the truth.”

Both sides are guilty of negative campaigning, said Clifford. “It’s hard to pin down who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy. I’d rather see it be more cleanly run.”

Chud Wendle, owner of Wendle Motors, thinks the worst influence on campaign tactics comes from outside the area.

“I’m happy with the locally directed ads from candidates. But I’m definitely upset with the money that’s coming in from the national political committees,” said Wendle, who contributed more than $12,000 to various campaigns and a political action committee for car dealers.

Wendle said he is giving more to candidates this year because he thinks the community, state and nation face critical issues on business development and taxes. He sees it as a competition between candidates who have common-sense experience with business and those who only know about business from studying reports and making plans on paper.

But the total amount that is being spent on campaigns does make Wendle, the board chairman of the current United Way Fund, think about lost opportunities.

“Could we invest that money better into the community, where there are real needs?” he wonders.